FOLKSTON, Georgia (AP) – More than 160 years after her great-great-grandfather settled on a piece of land surrounded by water in the Okefenokee Swamp, Sheila Carter takes visitors on guided canoe tours to see firsthand the swamp’s abundant alligators and stilt birds wade between blooming water lilies.
Even when she’s not working, Carter often paddles through the tea-colored water to find peace in the middle of the pristine wilderness. She fears that if a mining company is allowed to dig for minerals just outside the gates of Okefenokee, home of the largest US game reserve east of the Mississippi, it could be irreparably damaged.
“I’ve paddled the swamp my whole life,” said Carter, whose ancestors first came to Okefenokee in 1858. “You cannot 100% guarantee that they will not destroy or damage the swamp. And I don’t want them there. ”
Twin Pines Minerals of Birmingham, Alabama, has spent the past two years obtaining government permits to mine titanium dioxide on land 4.7 kilometers from the southeast boundary of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. The plan sparked an outcry that extends well beyond this sparsely populated community near the Georgia-Florida border.
Federal scientists have warned that mining near the Okefenokee’s bowl-like edge could affect the swamp’s ability to hold water. Environmental groups have gathered thousands to write or call regulators and elected officials.
The decision as to whether the mine will be approved is for the time being with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. The state agency often works with federal regulators to consider approvals for such projects. The U.S. government initially had a role in evaluating the Twin Pines project near Okefenokee until then-President Donald Trump changed the rules and restricted the types of waterways that qualify for federal protection under the Clean Water Act.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which was reviewing a federal permit for the Twin Pines mine, said in October that as a result of these rollbacks, it no longer had jurisdiction over wetlands on the 299-acre site outside the swamp.
This left Georgia state regulators with sole oversight of the project.
“We are in uncharted waters,” said Bill Sapp, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Federal agencies like the Corps and the Environmental Protection Agency have always been involved in such wetland permit decisions, especially if you have a natural resource the size of Okefenokee.”
The proposed mine near the Okefenokee smelter is just one prominent example of how federal regulators are circumventing projects that could pollute streams or drain wetlands due to rule changes under Trump.
Since the new rules came into effect last June, the Army Corps has assessed more than 40,000 wetlands, streams, and other water elements that have potential development impacts. The agency found that only 24% of U.S. environmental laws qualify for protection, said Doug Garman, an Army Corps spokesman in Washington.
Garman said comparable data prior to the rule change was not readily available. However, an online database maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency shows that 42% of the bodies of water and water elements assessed by the Army Corps since August 2015 met the criteria for federal protection under the earlier regulations.
President Joe Biden’s administration has ordered a review of Trump’s rule changes and could reverse them. However, some conservation groups fear this would take too long and hope that Trump’s rollbacks will be lifted by a judge.
“It’s having an impact across the country,” said Kelly Moser, a Southern Environmental Law Center attorney who challenged the rollbacks in the US District Court in South Carolina. “With these types of waters losing their protection, there is no time to lose.”
The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge covers nearly 1,630 square kilometers in southeast Georgia and is home to alligators, bald eagles, and other protected species. The swamp’s wildlife, cypress forests, and flooded prairies draw about 600,000 visitors each year, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge.
Two decades ago, chemical giant DuPont withdrew from plans to mine outside the Okefenokee after encountering fierce opposition. Twin Pines wants permits to mine a small portion of the acreage being pursued by DuPont. Steve Ingle, President of Twin Pines, declined to answer questions about the potential environmental impact. Ingle previously insisted that his company could mine the site without damaging the swamp.
Government scientists were skeptical. In February 2019, the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote that the proposed mine could pose “significant risks” to the swamp, including its ability to hold water. Some effects, it is said, “may not be reversible, repaired or mitigated”.
Ingle has said mining will take place on a ridge above the swamp and will not go deep enough to cause underground leaks.
Georgia environmental agencies are considering five permit applications for the project. After an initial review, regulators sent Twin Pines 10 pages of questions asking for changes in April. Once these are answered, the agency plans to meet with the general public.
“We see that the EPD is extremely cautious,” said Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club in Georgia. “The agency’s response is greater than it was before the corps was removed from the field.”
Supporters of the mine include Charlton County’s elected commissioners, who were influenced by Twin Pines’ pledge to bring $ 300 million in investment and approximately 400 jobs to the area.
Dixie McGurn, who owns a Folkston store where tourists stop for lunch, ice cream, and souvenirs, admits she’s torn. Many visitors to Okefenokee are day-trippers who are not spending enough to allow local businesses to thrive.
“I don’t want anything to happen to our great miracle,” said McGurn, a former Folkston mayor. “But I’m worried about our workforce. We need something else to stimulate our economy here. ”
Georgia’s new Democratic US Senators are pushing for federal scholars to remain involved even if they have no formal oversight role.
Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock wrote an April 28 letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service asking for help with Georgia regulators reviewing state permit applications. Ossoff asked the agency again to “participate intensively” in a recent Okefenokee tour.
The offer was coldly received by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. Agency spokesman Kevin Chambers said he expected federal scientists to contribute “during the public comment process” on Twin Pines’ applications.
Chambers said several thousand people had already made public comments.
Republican Governor Brian Kemp has also spoken out. A Georgia River Network campaign to mobilize opponents of the mine resulted in 8,000 letters and 2,000 phone calls in Kemp’s office, said Rena Peck, the group’s executive director.
Kemp has declined to take a position. During an April layover in Folkston, he said, “I’m going to let the process go.”